Marie invoked the power of positive thinking as our plane landed in Delhi. “This time tomorrow, we’ll be looking for tigers,” she said hopefully. At the airport we went straight to a tourist information counter. “Which train station do we go to for the Corbet Park Link Express?” Marie asked.
The man behind the counter seemed to understand. “You want to go to Corbett?” he asked. “Go to the new train station.” About a half hour later a taxi dropped us off at the new train station. We couldn’t figure out where to buy tickets, so we asked a man in train station uniform.
“You cannot buy a ticket for that train here,” he said, speaking quickly and with a thick accent. “You need to go to the DTIC.” We asked where we could find the DTIC and the man rattled off directions we couldn’t understand.
“I’m sorry, can you explain that again?” I asked.
“Do not confuse!” he said in a loud voice. “Here, follow me.” He walked over to an auto-rickshaw and told the driver to take us to the DTIC. We thanked him and agreed with the driver on a price. After a short ride the driver dropped us off at a dodgy-looking travel agency. We were ushered in and seated before the desk of a smooth-talking travel agent. We knew something was off but it was a relief to talk with someone we could understand.
We told the agent that we wanted to buy tickets for the Corbett Park Link Express, leaving that night. He typed on his computer for a few minutes and then told us he had bad news. All the train tickets were sold out for the next week. “Can we take a bus?” I asked.
“Oh no,” the agent said. “Much better to take a car.”
Marie and I were slow, but we were finally getting it. “And you have a car that could take us?” we asked. Sure enough, he did. He quoted us a price that sounded way out of line. We realized we’d been manipulated from the start, that the uniformed man at the train station had steered us towards an overpriced tourist scam.
Back out on the street, another auto-rickshaw driver offered to take us to a “real” travel agency. We initially refused, tired of all the deception, but we couldn’t find anyone who could tell us where to buy the train tickets we wanted. The auto-rickshaw driver showed us that the travel agency he wanted to take us to was recommended in our guidebook, so we broke down and went with him.
Five minutes later we pulled up in front of another dodgy-looking travel agency. Feeling pessimistic, we walked through the door and found ourselves once again in front of a smooth-talking travel agent. “You’re in luck,” he said, “we were just about to close for the night.”
Expecting to be scammed again, we told the agent we wanted to take the train to the Corbett Tiger Reserve that night. “Where else are you planning to go in India?” he asked. “And how much time do you have?” Marie outlined the rough two-week itinerary she had in mind – first the beach in Goa, which we’d already done, then tigers at Corbett, then the Taj Mahal, and then over to the west to see sand dunes.
The agent suggested a slightly revised plan. “Here is what you should do,” he advised. “Tonight, you drive to Agra and tomorrow morning you see the Taj Majal. Then instead of going to Corbett you should go to Ranthambore National Park to see tigers. Much better. Then from there you can take a train to Jaisalmer to see the sand dunes. Very easy. You do not have much time.” He showed us his proposed route on a map, and – even in my highly skeptical state of mind – I had to admit that it made sense. The agent scribbled out some calculations and quoted us a seemingly reasonable price that included all our hotels, our own car and driver for the first four days, two jeep safaris in Ranthambore, a camel safari in Jaisalmer, and all our train tickets.
We spent about a half hour overcoming our fear of being scammed. We had the agent go on-line to check on the availability of train tickets to Corbett that night, and we saw with our own eyes that the train really was sold out (although only for a couple of nights, not for a full week). We met Raju, the driver who would be assigned to us. We read about Ranthambore and agreed that it looked just as good as Corbett. And we found the proposed hotels in our guidebook and confirmed that they were recommended as good midrange options. But we still felt uncomfortable and almost walked out.
The agent sensed it was the right time to go for the close. “Here is my mobile phone number,” he said, writing it out on a piece of paper. “If you have any problems, you can call me. I promise, after this trip you will want to come here and thank me.”
We wavered and finally broke. At some point we had to trust someone. Twenty minutes later we were in Raju’s car, heading for Agra. But before leaving Delhi we wanted to stop for dinner. Raju dropped us off at a restaurant and drove away to find a parking spot. Marie and I watched the car disappear and agreed there was about a 30% chance we’d never see our bags again. But Raju was right there when we finished eating and we hopped back in the car.
Marie, who had been to India before on a work trip and had already visited the Taj Mahal, warned me that the road to Agra was crazy. Even at 10pm at night, cars, buses and motorcycles shared the road with cows, tractors, camels pulling carts, packs of roaming dogs, herds of goats, bicycles, auto-rickshaws, donkeys, and people simply walking on foot in the middle of the road. All of this traffic moved in a chaotic mass, paying no attention to lanes. Just out of Delhi we began to pass wedding celebrations being held in huge, brightly lit and elaborately decorated fields. Fireworks burst over some of them. “It is wedding season,” Raju told us.
At 1am we arrived at our hotel in Agra. The sleepy front desk clerks scolded us. “We were expecting you at 11pm,” they said. (I wondered why it took five front desk clerks to check us in when only one of them seemed to do anything, but – again – this type of wondering faded away as my time in India increased.)
We told Raju we wanted to be at the Taj Mahal before sunrise the next morning. “Then I pick you up at 5:00,” he said. At 5am Raju was nowhere to be seen. 5:30, still no Raju. I watched the sky begin to brighten and thought that the only chance I may ever have to photograph the Taj at sunrise was slipping away. Finally at 6:00 Raju appeared. He apologized. The guest house he planned to stay at had been full so he’d had to sleep in his car, and his cell phone alarm didn’t go off. We told him to forget it and get us to the Taj.
Raju dropped us off outside the west gate. A would-be tour guide saw us getting out of Raju’s car and told me that I couldn’t bring my backpack or my tripod into the Taj. Raju confirmed this, raising the question of why he hadn’t mentioned that himself. We made the short walk to the ticket counter and paid our admission fee. Behind the ticket booth a long line of people stretched back from the entry gate. “It’s not even open yet?” Marie and I said simultaneously. Why, then, did we wake up at 4:30am? It turns out the gates don’t open until sunrise, so getting here earlier wouldn’t have done us any good. On top of that we had a cloudy, washed-out gray sky, so it wasn’t a great morning for photography anyway.
The line started moving and I had my first look at the Taj Mahal. It really is impressive. Marie and I shuffled forward with the crowd and took the obligatory photos. After the initial thrill I caught my mind wandering ahead to the tigers in Ranthambore.